I’ve been a bourbon fan for a long time. I find it to be more approachable than most whiskeys, probably due to the sweetness imparted by the corn mash. I’ve also known that Kentucky is popular for bourbon distillers but have never really known why. On a recent trip to Kentucky with 50 Campfires I finally learned why 95% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky, and thought it was fascinating.
The water is missing something. The water in Kentucky is perfect for making bourbon because of what it doesn’t have: iron. The area sits atop a massive bed of blue limestone and filters out iron, which can give liquor a bitter taste. The limestone also adds calcium, which adds minerals and imparts a bit of sweetness. Lastly, limestone water has a higher pH, which aids in fermentation.
Bourbon barrels love erratic temperatures. Kentucky regularly tops 100 degrees F in the summer, and dips below 0 F in the winter. This causes the charred bourbon barrels to expand and contract, which draws the bourbon into that tasty char in the summer and expels it in the winter. Because the temperatures are so extreme, the barrel imparts flavor to the bourbon faster than if it were in a climate with a more narrow temperature range.
Corn as far as the eye can see. The soil in Kentucky is fertile and perfect for growing corn, the main ingredient in bourbon. As you probably know, bourbon mash has to be at least 51% corn, so you’re going to need a lot of it. If you can grow it in the same place you’re distilling, all the better. It makes the bourbon cheaper to produce, and since the used corn mash gets fed to the cows, it’s a win-win for everyone. These three natural features of Kentucky make it a hard place to beat if you’re looking to open up a bourbon distillery. If you went anywhere else, it would be just a little harder to turn out a world-class bottle of bourbon.